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Road Trippin': Kinnikinnick Farm

By Chuck Sudo in Food on Aug 5, 2009 6:00PM

With a huge hand clutching a glass of Austrian sparkling wine, David Cleverdon slowly gestured across the seemingly endless verdancy surrounding us like a compass searching for True North and said, "You're catching us at the beginning of a transition. Tomorrow, trucks will be coming to the farm and tearing up the land as we start laying the ground work for the future of Kinnikinnick Farm."

Kinnikinnick was the setting for a farm dinner Monday night produced by Outstanding in the Field featuring the cooking of Stephanie Izard and Perennial's Ryan Poli. The transition Cleverdon and his wife Susan were referring to was an agritourism venture in which Kinnikinnick Farm is jointly participating with a British company, Feather Down Farms. Feather Down Farms sets up giant tented living spaces in the middle of working farms so that guests may be able to see — and experience — the day-to-day goings-on of an actual farm (think of it as a turn of the century fantasy camp). Kinnikinnick is one of three farms chosen by Feather Down Farms to participate in the U.S. It's a far cry from when the Cleverdons left Chicago and settled in Caledonia, Illinois, starting Kinnikinnick with a 1/2-acre garden.

Today, Kinnikinnick encompasses 111 acres, all organic certified. The farm's growth has coincided with a raised awareness (or popularity, if you will) of the farm-to-table movement, the growth of Green City Market (David Cleverdon sits on GCM's board of directors) and an increase in restaurants sourcing local purveyors for the freshest food available. "We were fortunate to have many chefs support us early on and we've been very fortunate to be able to develop endearing relationships with many of them over the years," Susan Cleverdon told assembled guests over dinner. Kinnikinnick specializes in heirloom tomatoes and Italian greens such as cavolo nero, spigiarello and bietina. The Cleverdons were also early beneficiaries of the arugula wave. "We were growing this strange green whose name people couldn't pronounce," Susan Cleverdon said, "and suddenly the popularity of arugula skyrocketed. Now it's one of the signature greens we're known for." In addition to tomatoes and greens the Cleverdons grow a variety of produce, raise chickens, are bringing in livestock, rotate their crops and grazing fields and use organic herbicides and fertilizers.

Setting up an organic farm hasn't been easy for the Cleverdons. Listening to both David and Susan speak one gets the sense that there's still some trial and error to a well-oiled operation, not to mention the spectre of larger corporate farms testing the waters of organic farming, using the term as a marketing tool as much as a philosophy of farming. Driving to Caledonia (with a side trip to New Glarus, WI) there were acres upon acres of genetically modified corn rising tall in the midday sun. Susan Cleverdon acknowledged that for many smaller farmers the struggle to stay in business can seem futile, as well as the irony of so-called "factory farms" receiving subsidies to grow certain crops. "Because farming in this age has become so industrialized, we're losing more and more small farms. We're also losing opportunities for people to become interested in farming and continue this lifestyle."

But there are people interested in agriculture — specifically farming — as a career. Susan Cleverdon offered one nugget of advice. "For those younger people who ask me what they should study in college, I tell them, 'My husband would say to study philosophy because you'll have many days where you'll need to have an engrossing conversation with yourself.'"

Kinnikinnick Farm is located at 21123 grade School Road in Caledonia, IL.

For the full set of pictures from the Outstanding in the Field dinner at Kinnikinnick Farm, click here.